Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Gender, Race and Dungeons and Dragons

The elephant is in the room. The revival of all things D&D has been an invigorating blast in the last year or so, and it is heralding a wave of creative imagination from people of all backgrounds. D&D is not just the realm of geeky straight white boys, it has opened up to everyone.

This is an unabashedly good thing, but it’s just a start.

What has been percolating on the edges of the D&D Renaissance is a realization that the game, created by (I presume) straight white men, was a product of its time, and as a result will have “baked in” gender and race assumptions that might be worth exploration.

I agree with this, and I welcome the exploration. Some of it is already apparent to me. Despite the presence of monsters, Dungeons and Dragons has people in it too, and how those people were depicted reflected the sensibilities of the time. Settings like Greyhawk may have had a large dose of Eurocentrism, but settings like Al-Quadim and Kara-Tur suffered from a dose of Orientalism.

Sometimes it was hard to see, as Gygax in particular was a history nut, and he knew his weapons and armor, so there were always things that told an astute reader that he had read academic sources with care and interest.  Oriental Adventures was obviously well researched, even if it did replicate a Western view of the “East”.  There was clearly a lot of reverence for the cultures being depicted.

I expect to see lots on this sort of discussion in the future, as more and more people get into the game and question how they are being represented. I heartily encourage this dialogue.

Today I want to focus on something else, equally important to the question of representation, and that’s how the game works on the ground. How is game mechanically structured, and more important, how is it used? Historians of technology only comparatively recently turned to this kind of question, and have seen large dividends in understanding how technology works.

D&D is no different.


Artistically D&D has represented women most often in a sexualized way. Ironically enough, the early edition depictions of women were far less sexualized, in part as the art was less technically sophisticated, but as time went by the “chainmail bikini” school of D&D art became prominent. However, recent editions like Pathfinder have done a lot to change that, though the art is still stylized at least some of the images are less sexualized, a response to changing gamer demographics I would assume. Fan art is also hitting D&D in a big way, and that is changing the depiction of women as well, as many of those artists are women who want a greater variety of heroic images in the game.

Game mechanically, the differences between men and women in D&D are reduced to a limitation on strength for female characters, other than that human males and females are interchangeable in the game. And indeed, strength is the only area where character stats have limits based on gender, so men and women has the same potential to score high in intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution and charisma. So the D&D rules score somewhere in the middle on this, they limit women in strength, but not in anything else, and they treat men and women equally on charisma, which is in and of itself interesting given traditional male attitudes to appearance.

But beyond this, the gender of a player and gender of a character do not have to be the same. This isn’t a new thing, when I played the game first back in the early 1980’s, male friends of mine sometimes played female characters. In college when women played with us, a fairly rare thing, they would often play male characters. It may have been a sin of omission, but the issue of cross-gender play was never officially addressed in the rules.

This and this alone makes D&D the potential tool for so much more than just gaming. Role play has a key psychological impact, it opens up people to new possibilities as decisions are made while in a persona, one place removed. It’s not hard to see how someone wrestling with gender identity might gain some self-insight and realization from playing a different gendered character. Drag is role-play, adopting a social and psychological role, D&D gives the player the option to “drag” other identities without the real-world consequences of doing so.

So to be clear, this doesn’t mean that gender based assumptions didn’t inform D&D, they did, and to whatever degree they are baked into the game they are worth teasing out. Neither does it imply that you have to play the game as an exploration of gender identity. But the ability of D&D to transcend gender role assumptions and allow for creative and exploratory play is a crucially important part of what the game provides. It also suggests that D&D is “open” to any gender of participant, in a fairly unique way amongst games.

This isn’t limited to gender by the way, shy, ineffectual kids often blossom at the table, assuming the role of the mighty warrior makes them the mighty warrior for a time, and sometimes even away from the table. Role playing allows you to explore, “other you’s”, that can apply to gender or anything else.


Which brings us to race. Again, I would echo my earlier caveat, there is a lot to be said about how race assumptions are baked into the game. 

However, in use, D&D has an interesting inversion on race. 

There is “racism” in the game, in the sense that it has racial preferences tables, with reaction adjustments (e.g. adjustments to how characters react to other characters) based on race. Elves hate dwarves, so there is some racial antipathy there in the charts.

But there is no attempt anywhere in the game to link game races to real world races, e.g. that elves represent white people or dwarves represent black people. There are some traces of this in the source materials D&D draws from, for example Tolkien has been accused of various forms of racism in his work. However, the author explicitly warned against reading his work as allegorical, and he mentions that there were dark skinned human beings, and that orcs were not human beings. To the degree that the source material was produced by (mostly) men of an older generation, you can assume there will be racial prejudices in the work, but it seems clear that none of the classic authors that inspired the game were trying to have fantasy races stand in for real world races.

More importantly, I think, than all of this exegesis, is the game mechanics of race in D&D. Human beings are not classified by race in any way other than “human”, there is one human race in D&D, and it’s all colors of the rainbow.  Even as early as the 1980’s there were non-white characters depicted on D&D products.

That wasn’t the “norm”, but it wasn’t unseen either. The game simply makes no assumption about whether you are white, black or anything else. There are zero game mechanical differences between different groups of human beings.

So in that way, D&D gives us an opportunity to portray a world where race, as we understand it, does not differentiate human beings. This is an immensely important realization. Just like gender, race based assumptions permeate our environment, no matter where you are. Given our current understanding of colonialism and post-colonialism, a game that does not encode established race based assumptions is immensely important.

And what I said above about gender applies to race here as well, a white male can play a black character, or vice versa. Role play has transformative power, allowing us to at least try to see the world through the eyes of others. Through role-play D&D allows players to be something else, in some cases this “other self” is a hyper-exaggeration of the regular self, the small, ineffectual white teenager becomes a full grown white man with a strong swordarm and the luck of the gods behind him. But in other cases it can be a self very different from the current one.

As we move forward to look into how the game was created and what assumptions it brought forward, we should remember that as a game, as it is played, D&D was and is greater than these assumptions, and has the potential for so much more. There is simply nothing in D&D, nothing game mechanical, that encodes either sexism or racism, so this gives us an opportunity. The fact that the game also holds the potential for role-play of the “other”, creates opportunities for empathy and self-exploration that are unrivalled in other forms of game.

As the game opens to more and more kinds of players I expect this aspect of the game to garner more attention.

You heard it here first. J

Monday, May 14, 2018

D&D as Genre Emulation 
I want to start a series of posts talking about first edition Dungeons and Dragons as the “ur-game”, or the game to be used in multiple genre’s or settings. Think of GURPS, one role playing system that encompasses multiple game settings or themes. People think of D&D as exclusively a fantasy game, but it is so much more than that. 

D&D has an image as being somewhat “medieval” English/Germanic, knights and wizards and all that. The game emerged from medieval wargaming roots in a game called Chainmail, so the connection is pretty intuitive. The genre, essentially medieval warfare with magic grafted on top, is often referred to

as “high-fantasy”,  think Tolkien. Harry Potter has purloined some of that mystique and wrapped it up in postwar English class consciousness, but the dressing is still there (suits of armor and such at Hogwarts, dragons, elves, etc.) for a medieval setting. There is a line for some people from Tolkien to D&D, call it the “high fantasy” line, and it makes them expect D&D to be a particular flavor.

Tolkien and high fantasy have obvious impacts on D&D, the presence of orcs, elves and dragons for example (dragons transcend Tolkien, but there were clearly part of his genre), as well as powerful, high level magic and mythological beasts (medusa, harpies, hydras, cyclops, etc.) Mythological magic and monsters are part of the high fantasy literature, and they are definitely influences on D+D.

However, D&D was meant to be much wider than that. The literary influences that shaped the game were not just “high fantasy”, but veered into at least four other related genres, sword and sorcery, sword and planet, horror and western. None dominate the game, but all are there, and they make D&D more than just a medieval combat game with magic grafted on top.

There are two impacts of this decision to use the game to emulate multiple genre’s, one: the play of the game is shaped by these influences, and two, D&D can be thought of as a base or “ur-game” for use with multiple genres, not “just” a fantasy game.

Game Play Influences
1. Sword and Sorcery
The sword and sorcery literature is grittier, more dark and violent, think Conan versus Bilbo, Elric versus Prince Caspian. Often the magic is rare (as in Conan) or more violent and horrific (both Conan and Elric). Morality is less clear cut, though to be honest even gritty heroes like Conan and Elric did end up doing the “right thing” where possible, their motivations were not always noble. Then there is Fritz Leiber, who added some humor to the mix, I’ve laughed out loud reading Leiber.

Sword and sorcery heroes were often anti-heroes, Elric is a famous example, An albino, he is weak unless he consumes a bevy of medicinal drugs to keep him strong, and his sword drinks souls to give him strength. Elric is tortured by this in the books, and is a tragic character as all who love him meet grisly ends.

So sword and sorcery characters are in a deadly environment, and they are somewhat more morally variable than high fantasy heroes.

D&D emulates these two features in game. First, deadliness, early edition D+D is notoriously deadly – there are a host of things that can kill you outright at any level (poison, falling, assassination, petrification, to say nothing of regular damage at low levels). Second, moral variability is captured in the alignment system, lifted almost directly from Moorcock’s work. Most high fantasy characters are essentially lawful good or close to it, D&D offers a range of alignment options for “anti-heroes” and anything in between.

2. Sword and Planet
The next flavor of literature that influenced D&D profoundly was the “sword and planet” genre, Edgar Rice Burroughs is the standard bearer for this kind of fantasy. It was science-fiction, but with swords as well as ray guns, floating boats as well as floating cities. Heroes were bold and not afraid of physical violence. John Carter is a great case, he retained most of the nobility of a high fantasy hero, but without the overarching “good versus evil” arc (John Carter’s main motivation was rescuing his love, not saving the planet or destroying some evil artefact) and with a tendency for wild heroic antics. John Carter was not afraid to fight with his fists if he had to, against any sort of monster. 

The sword and planet literature is similar to the sword and sorcery literature, in that it is deadly and somewhat amoral. But in addition the sword and planet literature gave D&D some of its swagger, sword and planet heroes were swashbucklers at heart. It is the source of “feats” and wild, cinematic action that drives the game. These aspects of the game are captured by the ability check, hit points (most of which are non-physical and represent luck, dodging and the favor of the gods) the saving throw and the initiative system, all of which allow for heroes to do things that regular people simply cannot. 

3. Horror
The second important area of influence is horror and horror themed fantasy, here I’m thinking of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulu stories and writers like Clark Ashton Smith. Stephen King defined three types of fear, the grotesque (an eviscerated corpse), the horrific (something unnatural like a “spider the size of a bear”) and the terrifying (the unknown). 

D&D has all three of these, as it casts its net wide for monsters. There are the “grotesque” monsters like slimes and jellies, the horrific, giant insects, zombies and ghosts, and the terrifying, any monster the party can’t perceive, shadows, invisible stalkers and any number of monsters that attack with surprise.

Then D&D has a slew of horrific, unnatural monsters with a Cthulu flavor, grells - floating brain tentacle monsters, gibbering mouthers - blobs covered with mouths, mind-flayers - brain eaters, Kua-Toa – fish men. There are also ample undead horrors, from zombies to ghosts to ghouls. 

In game play terms these monsters have deadly attacks, from life level drain of undead to paralysis of a grell to quick death from a green slime. But the horror element adds fear to the mix, players experience genuine fear for their character’s life thanks to the horrific monsters they regularly encounter.  

4. Western
The next influence, one that is not really discussed much as it was not explicitly referenced by the game’s designers in Appendix N, was the western. Pretty much every D&D game setting I’ve heard of has some variation on the “at the edge of civilization” theme. The party is often near a wilderness in a small town where humanoid bands raid periodically. It’s a strong trope in the game, and it maps almost exactly on to the trope of the Western, the paladin is both the lone sheriff in the border town and the roaming martial artist master that deals justice with his fists. 

Call it “frontier fantasy”, Tolkien has elements of this (civilization versus barbarism), but British themed, D&D translated this through an American sensibility and produced a game where your characters operate at the edge of civilization, often defending small towns and communities from roving bands of “barbarians” (e.g. orcs) while amassing fortunes in gold and piling up bodies while doing it.  

It cannot be overstated how much this theme runs through early edition D&D. D&D characters require immense amounts of gold to advance in level, and the game has a 1gp=1xp formula that makes it almost required to amass huge quantities of gold. In game this makes it possible for the party to avoid combat if they can still obtain the treasure, and makes D&D remarkably wealth focused, and proto-capitalist in its basic structure, and no trope fits proto-capitalism as well as frontier colonialism. 

It is necessary to make alliances and parley at times as you are frequently away from the trappings of civilization and its safety net against barbarism and violence. So the western gives both a nomadic theme to the game (older edition D&D characters are sometimes referred to as “murder-hobos”), the characters move around a lot and are perpetual outsiders, requiring them to make alliances and sometimes avoid combat, and a wealth focus to the game, which also helps to avoid conflict in some cases, and drives it in others. 

Game Play Impacts Summarized 
So these four influences on D&D take it beyond the realm of strictly mythological high-fantasy, and give it some important characteristics:

1. Deadliness
2. Moral variability
3. Wild, Cinematic Action
4. Fear
5. Nomadism
6. Wealth Focus 
For all their inspiration, high fantasy stories can have an element of inevitability to them, we all know the hero will survive, and will achieve their goal, a noble, self-sacrificing goal, only after a great personal sacrifice. That’s a rewarding arc, but it gets dull and predictable pretty fast. D&D transcends this sort of simplified moral structure and offers something much more mercurial but ultimately something much more visceral and engaging in a role playing game. There is more at risk in a D&D game as you know your PC is on their own in a dangerous world, with no guarantee of survival, but with the ability to do remarkable things. I find this combination of deadliness, fear and wild cinematic action, when wedded to moral variability, a focus on wealth and the rootlessness of adventurers presents a unique gaming challenge that requires initiative, cooperation and creates a visceral, immersive experience at the table. 

2. D&D as the “Ur-Game”
D&D wasn’t just influenced by these genres of literature, there are explicit connections made in first edition D&D to running games with these themes. Advanced 1e D&D was meant to be playable in different genres, sometimes referred to as “gonzo” play. 

From the 1e DMG:
“In addition, there are many games which can be “plugged into” your ADBD campaign to serve as relief. After all is said and done, role playing is role playing and the setting is not of paramount importance. The trick is to adapt one system to the other so as to enable continuity of the characters from ADBD into the other setting. This allows not only a refreshing change, but it poses new problems to participants and adds new factors to your campaign – new abilities, new weapons, etc. TSR has many games and rules systems which can be used with this game to expand and invigorate your campaign. Space does not permit detailed explanations of how to do this with each and every possible system, but two readily lend themselves to both the spirit of AD&D and its systems: BOOT HILL and GAMMA WORLD.” 

This is followed by conversion rules for characters and weapons between games.

There are also modules with a science-fiction theme in D&D, for example Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, where the players investigate a crashed starship full of robots and lasers. The “other” original D&D campaign, Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign, also had time travel and science fiction elements to it, found in modules like Temple of the Frog. 

This is a clear indication of the “ur-game” aspect of first edition, the expectation was that it was compatible with both western and science fiction elements, in addition to high fantasy. It also had the potential to be run “low fantasy” like a sword and sorcery game, emulating Howard and Leiber rather than Tolkien, as the DM has full control over the level and amount of magic available.  

I have spoken to players today that have no idea that first edition was so expansive, they think of it as Gandalf and orcs when it could also be spacemen, barbarians, mutants, six-shooters, mind flayers and vampires. 

This is the other reason why I think first edition D&D is a powerful game, not only does it incorporate a wide variety of themes from a swath of inspirational literature to create a unique and visceral gaming experience at the table, but it explicitly allows you to run a science fiction themed game or a western themed game, a low magic game or a horror themed undead and Cthulu style game. All within the framework of 1e’s mechanics. 

That’s pretty amazing.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Describing the World

D&D is a game meant to simulate or model something. Original D&D was based off a wargame called Chain Mail, and wargames were meant to model, somewhat imperfectly, medieval combat between soldiers, cavalry and siege engines. D&D added magic and monsters to the mix, so the “realistic simulation” was abandoned in favor of simulation of pulp novels and fantasy literature.

You might not know it with all of the setting specific games like Lankhmar, Conan, Call of Cthulu and Middle Earth Role Playing out there, but D&D was meant to emulate them all.

In any simulation there will be a mismatch between what the player knows and what the player’s character knows. One of the most obvious places where this is an issue is the question of what the character experiences. Your character sees things, you only “see” what your character sees when your DM describes things to you or shows you a picture.

Your character would obviously get a lot more out of the environment than you do, where you get a verbal description of a visual scene, your character would see, smell, touch, taste and hear the environment around them, and as such have a lot more information at their disposal than you do.

Call this discrepancy the ‘information gap’, all PCs suffer from this information gap, and it’s the DM’s job to help to fill it.


Because the DM is the only conduit of information for the players, and information about the environment is *crucial* to survival in the game.

So how a DM provides information ends up being a pretty important part of the game, but it is one that is often not specified in great detail. Here are my top 10 suggestions for how to ensure that you are giving players the information they need to enjoy themselves and excel at the game.

1. Tell them What they See – Often!

Visual information transfer is perhaps the most important aspect of the game, what characters can see is most often crucial to making good tactical decisions, and to evaluating the likelihood of death. Most modules provide “boxed text” to read to players, this can work, but it is important when running a published module to look through the whole encounter description, as they often include key details in the main text that should not be highlighted by mentioning them separately.

Describe the color and texture of surrounding areas, what is the floor like? How about the walls? Describing the weapons carried by city guards, the kind of armor they are wearing, all of these details can be both tactically important and convey flavor to your game world. Oddly enough, it’s often not the big stuff they remember, but the details, and these details make the game world come alive.

I rely heavily on illustrations where possible, as pictures fire the imagination and can provide a focal point to help players stay in the game. I have always scared up a picture for every PC in my game, and as many of the NPCs as possible as well. A good character picture can help inspire a player and a DM about that character.

Also remember that a lot of adventuring environments are dark, and darkness is a major impediment in D&D. If you cannot see your foes you are more easily surprised, and you can fall prey to traps more easily as well. When you describe a dungeon make sure to let the players know that just outside of the lighting of the torch you can see *nothing* up ahead. Knowing you can’t see anything, and that something ahead may see you, can cause delicious dread.

2. Tell them what they Hear, Smell, Taste and Touch…

Don’t just give out visual information, also provide information from all of the other senses as well. Sound is useful as it often creates a feeling of dread when you describe the sound of approaching… something!

Be aware of the fact that you can hear things before you can see them, and occasionally throw the players a bone by mentioning the sound of something before it would be seen. Describe accents and such if you are not comfortable trying to give every NPC you voice a new accent, it give the game world some depth. Don’t be horribly accurate about numbers either, if the party hears an approaching band of gnolls before they are seen, the audio information can’t give them any specific numbers.

Smell is particularly useful for creating atmosphere and alerting players to problems when their characters are not able to visually identify targets. The 1e DMG has an appendix listing of smells and sounds to add atmosphere to your game, keep them handy for on the fly descriptions.

Remember that dropping sensation based clues can reward the attentive and thoughtful player. I once had a player ask if the door their character was touching was warm or not, his reasoning being that a warm door was indicative of a populated room, as it was winter and populated rooms are kept warm.

3. Sensation and Skill

Consider a mechanism for recognition of sensations based on character skill or background. 1e AD&D is notoriously thin on skills, or rather, skills are baked into the character classes, not free floating for anyone to choose.

Still, even the bare bones 1e approach allows that your PC has other skills outside of his class membership. Consider using those skills as a basis for recognition of important things about the environment. There are a few ways to do this, but none need to be particularly complicated. I would advise either just having the PC recognize something, or rolling to see if it is recognized.

For example, say one of the fighters in your party has a secondary skill of “sailor”, if the party is on the docks meeting with a potential employer and the party fighter is checking out the employer’s ship, you have an opportunity to relate to that with sensual information. So when the fighter checks out the ship say you roll a 1 in 6 chance the fighter might notice something about the ship based on his visual inspection, as he is a former sailor. Say you roll a 1 on the d6. You then tell the player of the fighter that he notices that the main sail isn’t secured properly, the ropes on the gunwales are rotted and torn, and that the barnacles haven’t been scraped off in what appears to be years. This is done outside of the regular description given to the whole party.

4. Give and Take.

Give a good visual description of the areas of interest when you are running encounters, but don’t go on forever. Get into the habit of giving a good, short general description of the environment, then let the players ask questions. After the first few sessions they will probably notice they do better when they ask more questions, but you might have to point that out to them as well.

The goal is to get your players skilled enough that they know what sorts of questions to ask. If you attempt to tell them all the relevant data it will take too long, so you have to pick and choose, but allow player questions to drive part of your description as well.

5. Take Inspiration from the Players

Maybe that evil altar didn’t matter to you, maybe the color of that fighter’s blazon was not on your mind, but adding those details, even made up on the fly, adds to the warp and woof of your world. Keep a piece of paper and pencil handy to write down anything you improvise so you can remember it for later, but if the players ask about details you don’t have, make them up!

I once had a player ask about the crest on a fighter’s tabard. I made it up on the spot. Then they started asking about crests on other opponents, and I found myself using the crests as a way of identifying to the players that they were dealing with opponents from the same place.

If you describe a smell in an encounter area and a player suggests that smell was present the last time they encountered monster “X”, then consider dropping monster “X” into their laps when they bring it up, verisimilitude like this really deepens the immersion in the game.

6. Give Out Tactical Information

One way to address the problem of the “information gap” in D&D is to give out a degree of tactical information with your descriptions. In the case of a map you codify this information for the players to see, often giving them *more* information than their characters would have. For example, maps and minis allow the players to get the so-called “god’s eye view” of the battlefield, something their characters would not have.

So maps address the information gap.

I have also created cut-outs the size of various common AOEs (e.g. 10’ radius, 15’ radius”) so that players can place them on the map to see how much area their attack will cover. I also have a large, square piece of paper with a hole cut out of it in the middle that I place on top of the map when the characters have limited visibility.

However, some of us play “theatre of the mind”, e.g. we do not provide maps and minis and instead the DM describes the tactical information where needed.

My suggestion here is to include some combat relevant information when describing an area. This can include a host of different things:

a) approximate distances to potential targets
b) height of ceilings
c) description of the limit of vision (e.g. how far can the players see)
d) description of obstacles in their path
e) approximate number of targets and relative sizes
f) identification of exit points
g) identification of cover and concealment
h) identification of armor, weapons and items on opponents

You certainly don’t need all of these all the time, but ideally after giving out this sort of information your players will grok that these are important variables, and start asking about them on their own.

7. Keep Descriptions A Similar Length, and Describe Most Things

DM’s, like poker players, have “tells’, actions or habits that signal to the players you are about to do something. Like poker tells, DM tells are almost impossible to recognize in yourself, but easily spotted by your players.

Here is a common tell: room descriptions. I didn’t know this at the time, but back in the day I had a habit of describing areas with potential encounters in great detail, but describing uninteresting areas with only the most general details. My players picked up on this and started to anticipate danger very well, until one of them mentioned to me that I did this.

The way to avoid giving out more information than you intend is to do three things:

a)      Keep your descriptions brief, allow the players to ask for more if needed

b)      Describe both important and non-important areas

c)       Use the same amount and kind of detail for most descriptions

8. Invest in a Thesaurus.. and Read Some Books!

We could all use a bit of a language boost now and then, don’t be afraid to shake it up by saying the same thing with different words. When writing descriptions ahead of time for encounters try the thesaurus to find new ways to say “a grey castle”, or “armed opponent”. You likely won’t notice it, but your players are all listening to you game after game, and they will notice when you use the same descriptive terms over and over again.

Also, good authors can give you tips for making your descriptions more evocative. Note the way some writers describe scenes by moving you around the scene from the things the closest to you to the things the furthest away. Others describe scenes by pointing out the largest things first. Others describe the most fantastic things first, and other things not at all. Study good writers and pinch their ideas!

9. Describe the Exiting Stuff

DM’s tend to get into a habit of describing things when the players are exploring, but the minute the action starts it’s all “you hit”, “you miss”, and “you do a lot of damage”.

In a pinch these are fine, but they really drain the fun out of the game.

D&D is a game of action, brave heroes doing fantastic things, don’t short shrift the action, pull out your purple prose and put it to the test.

Make this: “You miss”

Into this: “You bring down your broadsword in a vicious cleaving stroke but the hobgoblin anticipated your blow and moves just to the right of it, your blade biting into the dirt.”

If you need help with this sort of thing don’t hesitate to make up a “location of hit table” (I have one) so you can describe where those blows land, and add some flava to your fighting.

10. Don’t Name, Describe.

There is a temptation in D&D to say, “A group of ghouls approaches”. This is fine, but it is fun and sometimes more challenging to say something like, “A shambling group of humanoid figures approach, their skin is green, grey and foul, they emit a horrifying stench, and their fangs and claws are hideously yellow and caked with blood.”

You don’t have to do this all the time, you can reward your players with exact identifications for monsters they have encountered many times before, but keeping some monsters mysterious is good for the adrenaline rush.

It’s also handy if you “re-skin” monsters, e.g. give standard monsters different stats, or change the appearance of a monster while leaving the stats the same. If you describe your monsters then the players are less likely to feel you are messing with them when you re-skin a monster.

You are the conduit that brings the game world alive for them, make it a vivid one!

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